Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Cynicism, Hope, and the Total Depravity of Humanity

It seems like throughout the week, when I am at meetings, in my car, or otherwise completely busy, great topics come to mind that I feel would be great to spend some time and think through more, to work on in my blog. Usual however, by the time I get seated in front of a computer, with a comforting and inspiring cup of chai in my hand, the ideas are forgotten, or seem a lot less inspiring. This may be one such an occasion, but I am going to see if it works.

The original thought I had was to talk about cynicism and my struggles with how it seems to conflict with a faith in God and what God can do. Usually the cynicism is not directed towards God, but towards people, and usually more particularly, some sort of system, the government, the church, or the like. All of this has begun to merge in my head with the research I have been doing about the Reformation for my adult Sunday school class. One of the big things in common with most of the Reformers was a belief in the total depravity of humanity, that left to on our devices we will run away from God towards sin and evil. A belief that makes the cynicism I espouse and at times encounter seem a little tame.

The conflict I have with all of this is around where does a faith in God override our skepticism about humanity. I prefer to think of myself as an optimist, but I am aware that sometimes this seems to require ignoring a history of results that supports a much more cynical outlook of things. My belief is not that of the naive, that I just don't think that people can be bad or something, but accepts a reality of who they are and hopes for something better. I never liked the concept of the total depravity of humanity, because it seemed to imply that either God had created us as flawed beings (which no one really wants to say) or that we as humans have the ability to so completely screw up God's creation, which either glorifies us, or again implies something about God's creation to begin with. While I agree with the general idea that no one can live without sin, and that without God's grace we are all to be found lacking in someway, I don't think this means we should be so negative about our existence, nor does it mean we should just forget that God's grace is around us in abundance, at work in the world everyday.

I think in the end cynicism just gets too depressing. It is easy to be skeptical about everything that goes on around me, to feel like nothing that is done will make a difference. I know the reality is that many attempts that take place, in our lives and in the church fail, but that does not mean we should just give hope. I keep going back to the passage in Acts, where the Pharisees are discussing what to do about Peter and the rest of the disciples who keep preaching in the temple. One finally says that if they are from God, nothing the Pharisees could do will stop them, but if they are not from God, the Pharisees have nothing to worry about. We need to have that God is at work in the world, and that there is a reason to hope, even when our cynical side says that these things never work. Most church plants fail, but that does not mean we should stop planting churches, it just means we have to keep trying, and know that God will find a way to work through us, to overcome our failings, and make something truly miraculous happen. There are lots of things happening in my churches and the the Minnesota Annual Conference, I could be cynical about these changes, but I prefer to have hope, that God will find a way to use what is going on for some greater good, it may not be a logical leap to make, but I prefer it as a leap of faith.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Vulnerability of God

I preached a sermon two weeks ago on the story of Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac. The New Interpreter's Bible commentary for this story brought up a very interesting idea, the vulnerability of God in this story. I am sure I am not alone in being uncomfortable with the command that God gives Abraham to sacrifice his own son. Even if it is just a test it seems a very cruel test. The commentator for this passage makes the interesting point that while this is a test of Abraham and his faith, God has a stake it in as well. If Abraham fails the test and lacks faith, what happens to God's promise? Will God still make Abraham the founder of a great nation? Could God be wrong about Abraham? If God cannot be wrong, then is it really a test? Since God already know the answer it does not seem to be a good test, nor is it really a teaching moment since there is no hint of anything learned from the experience, other than the faithfulness of God and of Abraham. Strange as it may be, for me the vulnerability of God is comforting. If God is as unchanging and unchangeable as more orthodox thinkers like Aquinas believe, then my life makes no difference in God's eyes. It cannot make a difference. In order for my life to mean something to God, for God to want me to be saved, there has to be something that God wants and cannot, or choses not to control. If this is the case then God can be let down, God can lose, at least on a local level. If God truly wants the world to be redeemed
(which I believe is the message of Scriptures) it seems that one of two things must be the case, God will redeem the world regardless of what we do, or in fact it is possible through our actions for God to not get what God wants. While God may or may not choose to redeem the whole world, I believe that at some level it is possible, through the gift of free will that humans have, for God to not get what God wants, this is perhaps the real way that humanity can sin. While I cannot be certain of all of this, and I am certainly open to a third option, I wanted to say what strikes me most about the second option, that it is possible for God to not get what God wants, it means that what we do really matters. Not simply matters on the small scale of how it affects our own lives, but matters in the grand scheme of things, matters to God. Suddenly the imperative to go into the world, to make the world a better place becomes all the more real. What are you doing to help God today?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Too good for mere money

I watched the movie "Facing the Giants" on Sunday with an enthusiastic crowd from church. There are several quotes that can preach in that movie, and I felt that it had a lot to offer in terms of things to consider. I wanted to start with the part that unsettled me the most, not because I felt the movie was bad, but because that is the part that is disturbing me, and it may have nothing to do with the movie. Without going too much into the film, the main character, a football coach, is struggling in all aspects of his life, his marriage, finances, football team, inability to have children. Everything around him seems to be falling to pieces. Ultimately he decides to give his life up to God and change how he is doing things. Suddenly things fall into place, the football team starts winning, he gets a new truck, a raise, everything seems to be going well. Even when the team is eliminated from the playoffs, fate (God) works in their favor and the team that beat them is disqualified. At the very end of the movie the man has everything, a winning team, a great job, a great marriage, even the children he was told were not medically possible.

This is where I struggle with the movie. The message of the movie is clearly stated, through God, anything and everything is possible. God finds a way to bless this man in all aspects of his life, removing seemingly impossible hurdles to help him succeed and prosper. On the one hand I do not want to try and say that God is not able to do great things, or perhaps even do all things, but I just struggle that the message of the movie is that God will give us what we want if we just have faith. I believe we should have faith, and I believe God will provide for our lives, but I struggle with the way the idea that God will provide in exactly the ways that we want. For me God is too good for mere money. The gifts that God gives us seem to go beyond such a material thing. I know that the Old Testament is filled with signs of God's prosperity, Abraham, Lot, Job, etc, but does this mean that this is the way that God is going to work in all our lives? I don't believe that God is simply there to provide for what we want. I believe that God is meant to challenge us to something more. It seems a little vain to believe that we know what is best for us and that God will provide that for us if we just follow God. Suddenly following God becomes a sound investment on our part, a way to obtain what we want. I think the concern I see in all of this is the idea of a prosperity Gospel, that for those of faith, God will s

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Letting go and taking hold

Letting go is hard. Light of the Lakes has begun to talk about creating a missional focus for the budget, specifically taking a percentage of all that we get in giving and moving that on to different causes, both locally and globally. It is not an new idea, one that many churches do, but it is hard sometimes to make the first step towards it. Light of the Lakes is doing so not based on the knowledge that we have the money, but on the faith that God will provide for us. It is not a financially sound move, but I believe it is a faithfully sound move. Perhaps it is too much of a stretch, but I liken it to the Kierkegaardian leap of faith, moving us beyond what we know into an uncertain realm where we just have to trust in God. It is hard, for someone like me who obsesses about numbers and takes comfort in logical certainties, there is no certainty in a budget based on faith. The challenge is to let go of our desires for control and certainty and instead move into an area of trust and faith, because that is where I believe the church is meant to be. it is a hard journey for me and for others, but one I recommend as part of growing in faith.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Be Still

Both of my churches are moving into Stewardship campaigns as we prepare for our next fiscal year. This obviously gives me as a pastor a lot to think about, sermons to formulate, letters to write, and then the add stress I get from wondering if it will all be enough. In the midst of all this stress however I had a thought, a moment of peace. "Be still and know that I am God." It is the thought that has been going through my head for the last day. I like it. Here I am getting ready to talk about having faith in God and yet somehow I am still worried about whether I am doing enough. I know I still have to do write the sermon and mail the letters, there is a work I need to do, but I don't need to stress about all of the results, I have to remember that I am not the one that is doing the real work here. God is the one at work in people's hearts. Stewardship campaigns are not about sermons and cute gimmicks, these are simply the vehicles that God uses. I can never do enough on this, until I just relax and trust in God. "Be still know that I am God"

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Competition in the Church

I was attending a meeting about planning and visioning a future for Park UMC when an interesting way of looking at things came to me. We were talking about factors inside the church and outside the church when our leader brought up the term "competitive knowledge." In the business world this is the knowledge of what your competition is doing, so McDonalds being aware that Subway is really pushing the healthy side of fast food, or Nissan knowing what Toyota is doing with Hybrids. The tendency in the church, and my first instinct was to think, that for Park, that would mean looking at what the Lutherans down the street are doing, or the Assemblies of God across the river. Certainly it is good to know what other churches are offering, but I think there is more important competitive knowledge in the church. If we are to think about this not as a how we can poach people who might go to the Lutherans instead, we are limiting who we are looking for, even if we are not trying to take their members, just their potential members, we are not helping the greater Kin-dom. I think the real competitive knowledge we need in the church is knowing why people are choosing to stay home instead. Even we assume the Church has something to offer people, how are they getting this somewhere else. Who are people turning to instead of the church with their problems? Family? The local bar? Oprah? What are people doing to fill the spiritual side of them instead of church? This is the real competitive knowledge we need. How can we find ways to reach those people, rather than just worrying about what the Lutherans are doing, or the Catholics, or whomever it is in your area. The meeting was great, the conversation was energizing, but that thought alone seemed to frame it all so much better for me. Now I just need to work on figuring it out.